Florida legislature opens redistricting process to all

The Republigator, a Florida salute to Elkanah Tisdale and his original Gerrymander cartoon, showing Florida after the 2010 redistricting. (Illustration by the author © 2021.)

Sept. 27, 2021 by David Silverberg

Do you think you can draw better political maps than the state legislators in Tallahassee?

Now you can get your chance.

A new website, Florida Redistricting, launched Monday, Sept. 20, gives anyone who cares to use it the opportunity to recommend re-jiggering the state’s political boundaries based on 2020 Census data.

It’s a remarkable experiment in citizen participation and a striking change from past redistricting done in dark, smoke-filled rooms out of public sight.

Of course, while citizens can make plenty of suggestions it will be the legislature that finally decides how the maps will be drawn.

Still, for a state that has increasingly pulled the curtain on its vaunted principles of sunshine in government, it is an exceptional departure from the past. It brings a bit of light to a process that is unglamorous but essential—and determines the partisan balance of power for the decade to come.

The process

Redistricting actually consists of two processes: redistricting (redrawing district lines) and reapportionment (redistributing congressional seats among the states).  

Next year Florida gets one new seat in Congress based on its increase in population since 2010. That new district is expected to be in the high-growth area of Orlando or somewhere along the I-4 corridor.

The original cartoon that gave rise to the term “gerrymander.

Traditionally, redistricting is colloquially known as the process whereby politicians choose their voters, so voters will likely choose them at election time. It has been manipulated since the beginning of the American republic—and even before, in colonial times. In 1812 it gave rise to the term “gerrymander” after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry so manipulated the state’s district maps to his political advantage that what emerged was a salamander-like creature immortalized in a newspaper cartoon.

Republicans have been past masters of drawing lines to favor their party. This was highlighted in January 2020, after the death of Republican redistricting consultant Thomas Hofeller. His daughter Stephanie made public the contents of four external hard drives and 18 thumb drives from her father’s office, revealing his detailed gerrymandering work. While he was based in North Carolina, he had clients all over the country and participated in Florida’s redistricting.

In 2010 two constitutional amendments, 5 and 6, were on the ballot in Florida. Amendment 5 covered legislative districts, amendment 6 covered congressional districts and both were known as the Fair Districts Amendments.

Both amendments required that: “districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”

In the 2010 election both amendments passed with 63 percent of the vote, despite vehement opposition from the state’s Republican lawmakers. (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) joined a lawsuit to block their implementation, which failed.)

Despite the amendments, Florida’s 2010 maps were drawn by consultants and political operatives who maneuvered behind the scenes to push Republican dominance. The lines were so elaborately gerrymandered when the maps were revealed that fair districts supporters sued to overturn them.

A “group of Republican political consultants did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” ruled Judge Terry Lewis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in 2014. “They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting” and “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan,” and “managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.”

It took five years of litigation to finally end the disputes, during which two elections took place.

Carving up Southwest Florida

Southwest Florida’s congressional districts—17, 19 and 25—were clearly the products of these labors, diluting any potential Democratic blocs of voters to favor Republican hegemony. (For more, see the 2019 articles: “Gerrymandering comes home to Southwest Florida” and “A tale of two swamps: Why Southwest Florida can’t keep its congressmen.”)

This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Estero), who heads the state Senate’s reapportionment committee, is promising that the process will be open, fair and transparent and meet both the spirit and letter of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendments.

“We are taking steps to safeguard against the kind of shadow process that occurred in the last cycle,” Rodrigues said during the first meeting of his committee on Monday, Sept. 20. “We will protect our process against the ‘astroturfing’ that occurred in the past, where partisan political operatives from both parties wrote scripts and recruited speakers to advocate for certain plans or district configurations to create a false impression of a widespread grassroots movement.”

He added: “Fortunately, we now have the insight into both the judiciary’s expanded scope of review, and how courts have interpreted and applied the constitutional standards related to redistricting. I intend for this committee to conduct the process in a manner that is consistent with case law that developed during the last decade that is beyond reproach and free from any hint of unconstitutional intent.”

How they break down

According to the 2020 Census, Florida gained 2,736,877 people over the last ten years and now has a population of 21,538,187.

In Southwest Florida, Lee County gained 142,068 residents, reaching a population of 760,822. Collier County gained 54,232 people to reach a total population of 375,752. Charlotte County gained 26,869 people to reach a total of 186,847.

The redistricting effort will try to bring the new districts into line with ideal population levels while meeting Fair Districting criteria. Since all of Southwest Florida gained population above the ideal, most—but not all—its districts are considered “overpopulated.”

Congressional districts

Southwest Florida’s congressional districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

Ideally, each Florida congressional district should have 769,221 people in it, a gain of 72,876 from last time.

According to the data from FloridaRedistricting.gov, in Southwest Florida the current congressional districts break down as follows:

  • District 17: With a total population of 779,955 people, it has 10,734 or .014 percent people more than the ideal number.
  • District 19: With a total population of 835,012 people, it has 65,791 or .086 percent more people than the ideal number.
  • District 25: With a total population of 771,434 people, it has 2,213 or .003 percent more people than the ideal number.

To find your congressional district, click here.

Southwest Florida Senate districts

Southwest Florida’s state Senate districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

Senate districts should ideally have a population of 538,455 people.

The two main Senate districts covering Southwest Florida are 27 and 28.

  • District 27 has 579,819 people, 41,364 or .077 percent more than the ideal.
  • District 28 has 563,557 people, 25,102 or .047 percent more than the ideal.

To find your Florida Senate district, click here.

Southwest Florida House districts

Southwest Florida state House districts. (Map: FloridaRedistricting.gov)

State House districts should have 179,485 people.

  • District 76: With 180,111 people, it has 626 or .003 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 77: With 197,485 people, it has 17,997 or .1 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 78: With 193,526 people, it has 14,041 or .078 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 79: With 189,703 people, it has 10,218 or .057 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 80: With 188,858 people, it has 9.373 or .052 percent more people than the ideal.
  • District 105: With 176,959 people it has 2,526 or .014 percent fewer people than the ideal.
  • District 106: With 164,757 people it has 14,728 or.082 percent fewer people than the ideal.

To find your Florida House district, click here.

Can it really happen?

In its effort to be inclusive, the Florida legislature is giving residents the opportunity to draw their own maps and recommend changes.

It’s a chance people should seize by going to the website.

To submit maps and recommendations a user has to create an account on the website. The site has a quick-start guide to walk users through the process.

Once in, users can fiddle with the maps to their heart’s content and send recommendations to the legislature.

It’s a remarkable innovation in participatory democracy. Time, however, is of the essence. The legislative redistricting session convenes on Jan. 11 of next year and it must complete its work by the time it adjourns on March 11. Without a doubt, it will be a contentious session.

After that, there will presumably be newly-drawn districts. By June 11, candidates will qualify to run for office. Then the party primaries will take place on Aug. 23 and the general election on Nov. 8.

Can this experiment in popular participation actually result in fairly drawn, politically neutral boundaries?

Obviously, it remains to be seen. In 2010 the Fair Districting Amendments passed overwhelmingly but the maps that came out were gerrymandered anyway. Florida always seems to have a way of ignoring or circumventing its most popular constitutional amendments.

Coming out of the gate, though, Rodrigues’ intentions seem good if his words are taken at face value.

If this experiment works Florida could become a national model of fair districting. This time, if citizens are alert, engaged and determined, maybe—just maybe—Florida for once might abide by its own constitution and put to rest the gerrymander, or, in this case, the Republigator.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

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